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The True Flowers of Life

Susan M. Yates, February 12th, 2024

At my first job, working at a Dairy Queen, I learned a lesson that has been proven time and again during my career. The people you work with make or break any job.

Photo by David Bartus, via Pexels

Applying that lesson to being executive director at RSI, it is easy to see why this has been the job of a lifetime. The people who work at and with RSI are amazing. They are smart, hardworking and dedicated to using ADR to make the civil court system work better for people with the least resources.

That’s one big reason it is bittersweet to leave RSI after 27 years.

But I’m also excited about my next phase. I am going to work in my two favorite areas – conflict resolution and non-profits – providing coaching, consulting, training, etc. And I’m hoping to maintain those wonderful relationships with the people who have made this job so much fun.

If you know someone who might be a good fit for the RSI CEO position, please encourage them to apply here.

I’m proud of what we have accomplished together at RSI. Board members and staff, mediators, judges, lawyers, researchers, funders, mental health professionals, professors and so many others have worked together to develop RSI from an idea to a nationally respected organization. We work hard every day to accomplish RSI’s mission of improving access to justice by enhancing court ADR.

In reflecting on these years, and thinking ahead to the coming transition, I remember a quote from comedian Lord Buckley that was on a poster in my childhood home. “The flowers, the gorgeous, mystic multi-colored flowers are not the flowers of life, but people, yes people are the true flowers of life, and it has been a most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in your garden.”

Most Give High Ratings for Mediator Fairness, Trust in Mediator in Recent Surveys of RSI’s Kane County Eviction Mediation Program

Jasmine Henry, January 10th, 2024

RSI administers an eviction mediation program in Kane County, Illinois. Every quarter, we provide a report to the court on the participants’ experience in mediation based on their responses to a post-mediation survey.

Between July 1, 2023, and September 30, 2023, 174 eviction mediations were held in the 16th Judicial Circuit of Illinois (Kane County). After every mediation, participants were invited via email or text to complete an online survey about their experience; not all of the participants completed surveys. In our latest survey report, we examined participant responses from those three months. Specifically, we focused on participant opinions regarding fairness, trust and satisfaction. In all, 21 tenants, one landlord and 11 attorneys responded. The participants responded to the questions according to a seven-point scale, which we consolidated into three categories: low (1–2), medium (3–5), and high (6–7). Participants were invited to add comments to some of their responses. Their responses are summarized below.

Trust in Mediator, Perceived Fairness

We asked respondents about their perception of the mediator. Specifically, we asked: “How fairly did the mediator treat you?” And, “How much did you trust the mediator?” Almost two-thirds of participants gave high ratings for mediator fairness and trust. However, respondents tended to rate mediator fairness higher than mediator trust. For example, fewer than 3% of respondents thought the mediator did not treat them fairly, while 15% of respondents had low trust in the mediator. There was a parallel, albeit smaller, difference observed in the positive ratings, with 63% of respondents rating the mediator as very fair, compared with 58% who had high trust in the mediator.

Turning more broadly to respondents’ perception of the mediation process as a whole, we asked: “Overall, how fair was the mediation process?” Most of the participants who responded felt that the mediation was fair overall, with 62% saying it was highly fair. Notably, this is very similar to the percentage of respondents who said the mediator was highly fair. Not all of the respondents were impressed with the process, and 10% of respondents rated the mediation a little fair or not at all fair.

Tenants who rated overall fairness as high focused on the clarity mediators provided them, describing mediators as “helping” and “kind.” An attorney who rated overall fairness high also emphasized the mediator’s “sympathetic demeanor.”

Comments of Tenants, Attorneys

We asked respondents to explain their overall fairness ratings. The landlord did not comment, but many tenants and some attorneys did. Tenants who rated overall fairness as high focused on the clarity mediators provided them, describing mediators as “helping” and “kind.” An attorney who rated overall fairness high also emphasized the mediator’s “sympathetic demeanor.” A quarter of the tenant comments mentioned court-based rental assistance, which tenants were often referred to by the program. Several tenants also saw the mediators as helping, saying, “They stood up for me … They didn’t let [the landlord] push me,” and “[We asked] for what we wanted and [the mediator] basically fought for us to get it.”

In contrast, tenants who gave medium and low ratings on overall fairness tended to focus their frustrated comments on the mediator’s relationship with the landlord. One tenant said the mediator “may have been more partial to the landlord” because they “were familiar with one another”; another tenant said plainly that “they are there to mostly help the landlord.” One tenant felt frustrated that the mediator did not seem to believe what the tenant said at mediation, saying, “The mediator seemed to take what I had to say about the situation with a grain of salt.” Attorneys who rated the overall fairness at a medium or low level focused on efficiency, with one saying, “I was disappointed that the mediator allowed the opposing side to spend valuable time on issues irrelevant to the case.”

Likelihood to Recommend Eviction Mediation

To further explore participant satisfaction, we asked participants: “If a friend or colleague had a dispute like yours, how likely are you to recommend eviction mediation?” Most of the participants who responded were likely to recommend mediation to a friend or colleague, with 67% saying they were highly likely to recommend it. One tenant commented, “I would recommend all mediation options; sometimes tenants are unaware of the resources available due to lack of communication or shame.” However, another tenant who was less satisfied with the process commented, “It doesn’t help the tenant. At all. It helps landlords.”

As was the case with the first question on participant satisfaction, the landlord did not comment on their responses to this question, but we did receive two attorney comments. One attorney who was highly satisfied with the mediation process commented, “We made the exact same settlement offer that was accepted at mediation to the landlord’s attorney months ago, and they never responded in any way despite multiple phone calls. I assume this was on their client’s instructions. Because of the mediation process, I believe they would have continued stonewalling us.” The attorney who was unlikely to recommend mediation to a colleague said: “The lengthy mediation process is not helpful in my view. Before this system was implemented, and still now (in other counties), I am often able to reach agreements with the tenants within 5–10 minutes in the hallway outside the Courtroom. There is no need for the mediator, in my opinion.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, the survey responses indicate that the program continues to provide a positive experience to most participants. Those who completed the survey generally had positive perceptions of the mediators and the program, with the majority giving high ratings on fairness, trust and satisfaction. However, some participants’ comments point to a perception among tenants that mediators are biased toward the other side and a perception among attorneys that the mediation process is not efficient.

RSI Report Examines N.H. Eviction Mediation Program: Agreement Numbers Hold, but More Tenants Move Out After Rental Support Ends

Jasmine Henry, December 13th, 2023

RSI recently completed an evaluation of New Hampshire’s statewide Eviction Diversion program. Begun in 2021, this voluntary program provides landlords and residential tenants the opportunity to mediate before a landlord/tenant eviction case is filed. We were asked to evaluate program use, mediation agreement rates, and the time from initial contact to case closure. The evaluation period ran from October 1, 2022, through August 31, 2023. We found overall that the program was successful at reaching landlords and tenants around the state, as well as at helping tenants and landlords to avoid eviction. The program was efficient as well.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels

The program process almost always begins when a tenant calls the court’s central phone line, although sometimes the landlord initiates contact and sometimes parties email the program directly. If the party calls the court’s central phone line, a staff member collects a summary of the party’s needs and emails the information, along with the person’s contact information, to the case manager/mediator. The case manager/mediator then contacts the landlords and tenants, conducts intakes, and schedules and conducts mediation. She also provides other assistance, such as a list of resources and referral to legal services.

Participation and Outcomes

During the evaluation period, 775 tenants or landlords reached out to the court about the eviction mediation program. Some reached out more than once, leading to 800 individual inquiries, 90% of which were from tenants. Of the 800 cases in which an inquiry with the Eviction Diversion Program was made, 176 (22%) were mediated.

We had final outcomes for 175 of the 176 mediations. Of these 175 mediations, 125 (71%) ended in an agreement and 50 (29%) ended without an agreement. The parties were more likely to agree to the tenant remaining in the rental than they were to agree to the tenant moving out: 63% of agreements were for the tenant to stay, while 37% were for the tenant to move out.

Results After Rental Assistance Ends

Housing agencies stopped accepting rental assistance applications at the end of October 2022 and stopped processing applications at the end of 2022. Somewhat surprisingly, this did not lead to a drop in agreements. The percentage of mediations ending in agreement rose from 68% before rental assistance ended (25 of 37 mediations) to 72% (100 of 138 mediations) afterward. However, the end of rental assistance did lead to a smaller proportion of agreements allowing tenants to stay. In October and November, 21 of 23 (91%) agreements were for the tenant to stay. This dropped to 4 of 9 (44%) in December, and 52 of 91 (57%) for the first eight months of 2023. Overall, 56% of mediation agreements after the end of rental assistance allowed the tenant to stay.

Tenants were offered the option to mediate by phone or by video. They overwhelmingly chose to mediate by phone: 157 of the 162 mediations for which we had data were conducted by phone. Only five tenants selected video mediation.

Mediations in general were conducted within a month of the tenant or landlord’s initial contact with the program. Almost two-thirds were closed within two weeks and only 11% took more than 28 days to close.

Recommendations

Based on our findings, we recommended that the program continue. It is well used and effective in helping tenants and landlords reach agreement. It has also been efficient, mediating cases quickly. We also recommended the court continue to give tenants the option to mediate by phone or video. This increases self-determination, and each method offers benefits. Phone mediation, for example, reduces the risk of a power imbalance caused by one party having a better grasp of technology or access to better technology, while video mediation offers the opportunity to exchange and view documents.

RSI Mediation Program Has Helped Over 1,500 Households Avoid Eviction

Sandy Wiegand, November 21st, 2023

More than two years ago, amid the looming threat of a rush of evictions as Illinois prepared to end its pandemic-era eviction moratorium, RSI partnered with the circuit court in Kane County to create a mediation program. It was free of cost to both tenants and landlords.

The program’s impact has been impressive. Since the eviction moratorium ended in October 2021, the Kane County Eviction Mediation Program has helped over 1,500 households avoid the traumatic effects of a sheriff’s eviction. Meanwhile, the program’s connections to rental assistance and legal and financial counseling have made it far more possible for these tenants to meet their financial obligations to landlords.

RDNE Stock Project via Pexels

Judge John Dalton, the 16th Circuit’s presiding eviction judge, also credits the program with helping the court run smoothly.

“With the help of RSI, Kane County was the first in Illinois to launch an eviction mediation program, and we have been overwhelmingly pleased with the outcomes,” Judge Dalton says. “It has been successful in assisting landlords and tenants in reaching mutually beneficial agreements. Thanks to this program, the court has been able to run efficiently during an eviction surge.”

RSI regularly surveys Kane County Eviction Mediation Program participants as one way to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. And participants have told us that mediation helps them feel heard and seen — as one tenant said, “like an actual person and not just some case number.”

As the weather turns colder and the potential consequences of eviction wax even harsher, RSI’s Kane County Eviction Mediation Program continues, with the support of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, the 16th Circuit Court, dozens of dedicated mediators, a few hard-working RSI staff members, and generous donors such as yourself. 

Thank you for your commitment to RSI’s work. If you’d like to invest in impactful endeavors such as the Kane County Eviction Mediation Program, you can do so on our website.

Want Your Court Communications to Be Accessible? RSI Focus Groups Offer Insights

Rachel Feinstein, October 16th, 2023

RSI’s research has shown that self-represented parties in small claims cases often don’t understand what online dispute resolution (ODR) is or how to use it, even when courts require their participation. To learn what self-represented parties need when a small claims case is filed against them, RSI’s OPEN Project is going to the source —­ conducting focus groups with people similar to these parties and asking what works for them.

Participants in an RSI focus group in Texas provide feedback on sample court documents in October 2023.

Director of Research Jennifer Shack and I led two focus groups in rural New Hampshire in August, followed by two groups in Texas in early October. We will finish our data collection for the ODR Party Engagement Project in Maryland this month. In the meantime, we want to share some of the initial insights we have gained.  

Hearing from 26 participants so far, we have learned about many of the barriers people experience when faced with examples of court documents, a court website and instructional court videos. Groups also shared their recommendations for how the material could be improved and their preferences for receiving court notifications and instructions. The majority of participants have a maximum of high school education. Most, if not all, participants earn less than $50,000/year. These income and education characteristics parallel the backgrounds typical of self-represented litigants, making their insights regarding the comprehensibility and usability of court material invaluable as we aim to develop recommendations for accessible court resources.

Notification Preferences Vary Widely

We are excited to share some preliminary findings from our focus groups. First, we have learned that providing court resources in a variety of formats is essential to addressing the public’s needs and preferences. Focus group participants expressed minimal consensus about the ideal way to learn about their involvement in a lawsuit or how to proceed with online dispute resolution. For example, only half of the 26 participants said they would prefer to receive an initial notice about their lawsuit through the mail. Six people would prefer to receive notice about their case over the phone, while five would prefer text message, and only one person wants to learn of their case via email.

“There are times where the form of a video works wonders in comparison to throwing a chapter out of a book at me or something.”

— Focus group participant

Further reflecting this need for variety, participants in two of our groups were enthusiastic about using instructional videos to learn about registering for ODR. One participant in New Hampshire shared, “I think a video would be good. Where they could break it down and explain it a little bit more in depth.” Another person agreed, “Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m a visual learner … If this was on YouTube … everything would be fine. It’d be perfect.”

A third participant added, “There are times where the form of a video works wonders in comparison to throwing a chapter out of a book at me or something.”

In contrast, most participants in the Texas focus groups did not express a need or interest in viewing videos to get this information. But several people did agree that, as one said, “options are good,” when attempting to meet the potential variety of needs, learning styles and preferences among self-represented litigants.

Participants Wary of Possible Scams

RSI focus group participants in Texas shared their recommendations for how court informational materials could be improved and their preferences for receiving court notifications and instructions.

One topic where focus group participants were largely in agreement was their concern about being scammed. During the focus groups, we asked all participants to look at one of two ODR websites on a laptop or tablet that we provided. The first step many participants took was to assess the credibility of the website. For instance, the first reactions routinely included comments about whether the site was legitimate or a scam. Some participants also expressed apprehension regarding receiving the mailed Notice to Defendants, wanting to contact the court to check that it was legitimately a lawsuit against them before following the instructions on the document.)

This initial step of assessing documents and websites for legitimacy may be crucial for courts to be aware of when developing their communications and other resources, since apprehension about whether the material is trustworthy could inhibit people from beginning the process.  

Simple, Organized Info Is Desired

One of the most consistent themes among the participants so far has been the desire for court resources to be simple and quick to use. For instance, we heard from many individuals who want courts to use simple language, concise instructions and well-organized documents or videos. Some participants specifically requested more spacing around paragraphs, and people found sections with bullet points or short fill-in-the blank questions easy to understand.

We anticipate delving more deeply into strategies for making court resources simpler to use and comprehend. Additionally, participants have been identifying key information that is missing from the material and sharing their emotional responses to the court resources. We look forward to examining these and other themes in more detail after we conclude our focus groups later this month. 

Check back soon for a summary of our findings and a guide for courts, which we will provide on a new RSI webpage this spring!

As always, RSI is grateful to the AAA-ICDR Foundation for supporting this important work.

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